Climate-Related Disasters Are Growing. We’re Not Ready for Them.

Max Besbris

Climate change is making “natural” disasters like floods far more disastrous for Americans across classes — and our public protections for the victims of those disasters are nowhere near adequate to help them recover.

A boy walks through a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area in 2017. (Jill Carlson / Flickr)

Interview by
Ben Beckett

It’s no secret that global warming is making natural disasters both more common and more severe. But neither the US government nor many residents seem to be taking the changing climate into account when it comes to housing.

This perception of risk is at the core of Soaking the Middle Class. In their study, sociologists Max Besbris and Anna Rhodes investigated the effects of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston suburb of Friendswood, where many people’s homes were significantly damaged. Almost nobody there thought they were at significant risk, and even after experiencing devastating flooding, most people decided to return to their homes.

But some residents had an easier time than others. Besbris and Rhodes found that many households struggled to access federal funds to rebuild their homes, and that often those who had more success in doing so were already better off to begin with. Some in this latter group were able to remodel their houses after Harvey to the degree they even came out ahead financially, while other Friendswood residents struggled to make their houses safe to inhabit. The aftermath of Harvey didn’t simply reflect pre-existing inequality, it actually drove inequality further.

Jacobin contributor Ben Beckett spoke with Soaking the Middle Class co-author Max Besbris about their study, the Friendswood community’s desire for housing stability, and why “natural disaster” is a misleading term.

Ben Beckett

Why did you and your co-author, Anna Rhodes, decide to examine post-Harvey recovery in Friendswood? How did you get started?

Max Besbris

One of the first things that struck us as the storm abated was the relative dearth of research on how middle-class and affluent places recover after a disaster. The emphasis on how disadvantaged communities recover after disaster is extremely warranted. We know from decades of work from people like Bob Bullard that environmental racism has created unequal levels of vulnerability. Neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty and more black residents are most likely to suffer when disaster strikes.

But the scope of Harvey — which featured the most rain from a single storm ever recorded in US history — meant that all parts of the Houston region’s social geography were affected. Friendswood, which is a largely middle-class suburb of around 40,000 people twenty miles from downtown Houston, flooded badly.

And Harvey is not unique. Global warming is making Atlantic hurricanes wetter (in addition to increasing the length of wildfire season and the chances of riverine flooding), meaning more storms will look like Harvey and more places like Friendswood will flood. So in part we were motivated to understand how a middle-class suburb recovers from a severe climate-related disaster, because it is simply the reality that more middle-class places will be affected by climate-related disasters in the near future.

But there is also a corollary political point here. Climate change is arguably the most pressing issue facing society, yet efforts to address it have been woefully inadequate. There are many reasons for this, including the power of fossil-fuel companies, weak and short-sighted politicians, political parties that are either captured by special interests or just death-cults, and so on. But another reason is that climate change is hard to see or experience materially in day-to-day life, particularly if you live in a place that you think of as being environmentally safe.

By studying a middle-class suburb, we want to make the point that not only are places like Friendswood more and more vulnerable, but also that people in these kinds of communities need to be made aware of their increasing risk. In other words, no matter where you live, you should think of climate change as an immediate problem.

Ben Beckett

You argue that viewing disasters as solely “natural” limits our understanding of them. Can you tell us more about that?

Max Besbris

Sociologists have long pointed out that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. The phrase “natural disaster” covers up how societal choices about where to build and how to organize space make some places more vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I think more people have come to realize that disasters are as much a product of capitalist development as they are of any purely ecological process.

The insight that capital dictates urban development and the distribution of risk goes back to many sources, including Friedrich Engels who, in his study of Manchester, described how workers’ housing was not only squalid but also closer to the river Irk and far more likely to flood, to be inundated with waste, and to remain unrepaired after damage. More contemporary scholars have pointed out the conditions that create our built environment haven’t changed much even as planning has become more large-scale, centralized, and technocratic. Infrastructure projects are designed not with longterm understandings of environmental impact but with short term aims to protect investment.

As a result, poorer places are systematically put at more risk.

The Houston region is a prime example of how growth is prioritized over safety. The area is basically paved over marshland, extremely prone to flooding. As a reporter for the Houston Chronicle noted, “there shouldn’t even be a city here.” And yet, the city has grown at a massive clip in recent decades despite an increase in flood risk during the same period.

The point is that a good analysis of disasters and recovery from them is one that takes into account the interests behind development. Development is not disinterested. It reflects, reproduces and even exacerbates existing inequalities. As a result, so too do disasters.

Ben Beckett

A lot of Soaking the Middle Class deals with how people perceive risk. Can you talk about how residents of Friendswood ended up misjudging the risks of a storm like Harvey?

Max Besbris

In our early conversations with Friendswood residents, we consistently found that no one expected to flood during Harvey. And the explanation lay not in some inherent psychological problem that individuals have when assessing risk, but more in structural factors about how risk is (or is not) communicated.

Really the only pre-flood mechanism by which residents may have been made aware of the risk was through flood insurance mandates. Homeowners who have federally backed mortgages and buy in what FEMA designates as a hundred-year floodplain — meaning in any given year the property has a one in one hundred chance of flooding ‚ must buy insurance. The logic behind insurance mandates is that risk is priced into the cost of purchasing in a vulnerable area.

But a wonderful recent history of flood insurance in the US by Rebecca Elliott shows that the cost of flood insurance is highly subsidized and does not account for the growing likelihood of flooding due to climate change. Furthermore, the mandate leaves out homeowners who don’t have federally guaranteed mortgages as well as renters. The one mechanism that is meant to communicate risk to residents doesn’t really work.

Additionally, the program does a poor job of communicating risk even to those who are made to buy insurance. Many residents believed that living in a hundred-year floodplain meant that their home was estimated to flood every hundred years. Friendswood had experienced some flooding in 2001 during Hurricane Allison and severe flooding in 1979 during Tropical Storm Claudette. Residents told us that, because these events were less than a hundred years in the past, they assumed their risk was very low. Even in the years following Harvey, the people we spoke to in Friendswood remained unsure about future risk. Lacking official or systematic information, they still thought of past storms as benchmarks.

What this all highlights is that the state has really failed to provide meaningful or actionable information about risk. If anything, by allowing more and more development in places prone to flooding and other climate-related disasters, governments signal a lack of vulnerability.

At the same time, an event like Harvey is so shocking, so devastating, that it can prompt new behaviors. While just slightly over half of the people we interviewed had insurance before Harvey, nearly all of our respondents did two years after the storm. Most were still very uncertain about their risk, but flood insurance remained fairly cheap and therefore an easy way to manage this uncertainty.

Ben Beckett

You talk a lot about how some residents of Friendswood were left in extremely difficult situations after their houses flooded, while others actually came out better off in the end, after doing repairs. How did that happen? Was it a result of broader stratification and “downwardly mobile” trends in the middle class, or was it unique to this unexpected disaster?

Max Besbris

The answer seems to be both. It’s no surprise that as neoliberal policies have grown inequality and diminished public welfare, financial risk has been redistributed away from the state and toward individual households. This means that some households in Friendswood had tenuous holds on their middle-class status.

Some of these households were older and no longer had salaries, but some were younger and had invested most of their money in their homes. When these types of households took on water, it represented a major hit to their only asset, and they had little reserve cash to draw on to help with recovery.

These pre-existing differences in households’ finances were key to understanding disparate recovery outcomes, but so too was insurance coverage. Flood insurance policies entitle households up to $250,000 to cover damage to structure and an additional $100,000 to replace contents like furniture, appliances, and clothing. After Harvey, uninsured households were eligible for direct support from FEMA, but these payments were capped at around $33,000. This meant that households in the same community who had taken on similar amounts of water were receiving exponentially different amounts of money for recovery.

To make this all more concrete, take Gina and Derek, a retired couple who had insurance and ended up with a payout of around $180,000. They spent less than that remodeling their home after Harvey, and when we asked Derek to describe their situation two years later, he said, “we made money on the deal.”

Just a few blocks down were Josie and Parker, who lived mostly on Parker’s salary from his job as a construction company shift supervisor. They did not have insurance and ended up with about $32,000 from FEMA. Two years after the storm, Josie and Parker were teetering on the financial edge. Parker worried that another shock — like a healthcare emergency, the loss of his job, or even another flood — would ruin them. They were still living without flooring in parts of their house and were unsure when, if ever, they would finish repairs.

Ben Beckett

Can you say more about how crises like this not only reflect, but also drive, inequality?

Max Besbris

The bifurcation of the economy over the past fifty years combined with the growing scope of climate-related disasters has created a toxic mix of precarity and risk. We’re at a moment when households are less able to weather financial hardship than in previous decades while their potential exposure to climate-related disasters is increasing.

Sociologists have been very good at describing how the past casts a long shadow on the present. A century of racist housing policies and growth-at-any-cost development have placed already disadvantaged households and communities disproportionately in harm’s way. Sociologists have been less eager to predict the future, but we need to accept this challenge head-on given the climate crisis.

One of the goals of the book is to show that as climate-related disasters increase in intensity and scope, current recovery policies are not up to the challenge of mitigating risk or making individual households whole in the aftermath. In fact, these policies increase inequality by doling out money unevenly across and within affected communities. It’s not hard to imagine a near-term future where more flooding, wildfires, and other climate-related catastrophes sap the resources of more and more households in unequal ways, exacerbating differences in our already stratified social geography.

Ben Beckett

One chapter focuses on residents’ decision whether or not to move back to Friendswood. What makes people want to return to areas vulnerable to disasters?

Max Besbris

This was not necessarily a question we set out to answer when we started the work, but as we followed these flooded households in Friendswood for over two years, it was a bit surprising how many wanted to stay despite the devastation of Harvey and the drawn-out, stressful recovery process.

The answer, in part, goes back to existing inequalities across places. Friendswood is a desirable suburb. Its schools are highly rated, it has a reputation as being bucolic and small town-ish while still accessible to job centers like downtown Houston or the Johnson Space Center. The middle-class households that lived there before the storm felt like they had actively selected into the town and that owning a home in Friendswood was a sign of accomplishment. It meant that they had attained “the good life.”

As a result, the idea of leaving was quite foreign. Many households we spoke to thought of their houses in Friendswood as their “forever homes,” or, if they planned to move, thought that they would do so in the distant future, like after children finished high school or after retirement.

So residents felt extremely tied to Friendswood, precisely because it was a desirable, comfortable place to live with good amenities. Housing prices rebounded quite quickly after Harvey, and residents took this as further proof that Friendswood was special. Put another way, residents weren’t sure that other places could offer what Friendswood offered, even if other places hadn’t flooded.

This is all to say that place inequality — the fact that some places are higher quality locales — can override any sense of vulnerability or risk.

Ben Beckett

You talked a lot about stability as a key factor in middle-class housing decisions. Did you find that the post-Harvey rupture changed any of your interviewees’ perspective, or did it make them double down on the desire for “forever homes”?

Max Besbris

Far more the latter. After the storm, there was an outpouring of support for flooded households. For weeks, the streets of Friendswood were clogged with volunteers helping flooded residents muck out their homes — clear them of water damaged furniture, flooring, sheetrock. It really did seem like everyone was helping or being helped.

This also fostered a sense that Friendswood was special; that it was an intimate and caring community and became a reason residents gave when talking about their re-commitment to the town after the flood. They told us that Friendswood was not only desirable because of its middle-class amenities and lifestyle, but also because it was close-knit and charitable.

The help didn’t last. After a few months, most affected residents told us that there was a precipitous drop in unprompted offers of support. But by then, most flooded households had already made the decision to stay put.

Ben Beckett

Having seen and heard a lot about the government’s response to Harvey up close, how confident are you in its ability to handle increasingly severe and frequent climate-related crises?

Max Besbris

Not to sound glib, but there’s basically nothing good about how the government currently responds to disaster. Past disasters like Katrina have turned out to be unheeded wake up calls  — the government hasn’t woken up.

We need stronger financial protections after disasters. This means eviction moratoria and government mandated mortgage payment forbearances. We need to give affected households the time and flexibility to decide what to do.

We need to shift resources toward fostering mobility away from vulnerable places. In less than a month after Harvey, the government paid about $1.5 billion in efforts to keep people in their homes. This included advance insurance payments, direct FEMA aid, and loans that the government provides homeowners to start rebuilding. Compare that to under $500 million that has been spent on buyouts in the five years since the storm. Current recovery programs simply incentivize staying in vulnerable areas.

We need a far more comprehensive plan to limit development in places that are only getting riskier.

And finally, we need to reduce inequality within and across communities. A stronger social safety net would ensure that the most vulnerable households within a neighborhood aren’t made destitute when disaster strikes while their better-off neighbors do just fine. And more equitable funding of schools and other social services across places would reduce the need households’ feel to stay in vulnerable neighborhoods because those neighborhoods offer better opportunities. A Green New Deal would be a great start.

This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.

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Max Besbris is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Upsold: Real Estate Agents, Prices, and Neighborhood Inequality and coauthor of Soaking the Middle Class: Suburban Inequality and Recovery from Disaster.

Ben Beckett is an American writer in Vienna.

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